A leadership team can be full of bright and experienced execs, but unless they keep an eye on how the trading environment is changing then the business can get left behind. Leaders need to use innovative ways to encourage knowledge sharing and expand their field of vision.
While many businesses struggle to maintain a flow of high-quality external intelligence, it’s not down to underestimating its value. In research conducted at Criticaleye’s CEO Retreat 2018, attendees recognised that ‘seeking inspiration and fresh thinking from other sectors’ was the number-one area where they needed to improve.
Tom Beedham, Director of Programme Management at Criticaleye, says: “Executives are usually aware of the need to lift their heads up and take a longer, wider view, but the demands of the day job mean this can fail to happen.
“Consequently, they won’t be picking up the insight and learnings that could prevent them making common mistakes, and they will also miss out on the creativity that sharing ideas can bring.”
Paul Pomroy, CEO of McDonald’s UK, believes it’s a mistake to always fall back on the experience of your serving execs. “A lot of leadership teams do rely on what they’ve learned in the past… The most dangerous leadership team is the one that’s informed [by] a lot of people internally,” he says.
External recruitment is one way of avoiding stagnation and, at McDonald’s, Paul says they have “a good mix between internal promotions and external talent coming in”.
Diana Breeze, currently Group HRD of Bunzl and until recently Group HRD of Landsec, says that property is a “particularly inwardly-focused industry”. She agrees that bringing “fresh blood” into an organisation is important and, in her previous role, deliberately recruited people without “a particular industry perspective” to broaden the business’ outlook.
However, Diana also says it’s crucial for the incumbent top team themselves to seek a wider external view. She encouraged the business to invite outside speakers into meetings and away days, allowing execs to benefit from the experiences of leaders in other organisations. “I think it’s absolutely critical because otherwise you can become focused on very operational and inwardly-looking issues, when the world around us is changing so fast,” she says.
When seeking external input, it can be tempting to always try and benchmark with similar businesses. Jill Easterbrook, CEO of Boden, says this is a mistake: “I think these days there’s so much change going on, and often it’s other industries that are changing faster than your industry. So actually, you can learn a huge amount from other leaders.”
Jaidev Janardana, CEO of Zopa, agrees that “talking to people who are actually facing similar challenges – even if in a different context or in a different environment – is very helpful”. He finds value in “just sharing those experiences” and will often find two or three examples of things those businesses have tried that he can learn from.
You’re Not Alone
Independent directors can be another valuable source of external insight, bringing in lessons from their exec careers and learnings from the other businesses they work with in a non-executive capacity. However, when the relationship between CEO and Chair drifts towards that of mentor and mentee, someone more detached may be desirable.
Neil Griffiths, NED at City Pub Group and StarStock, as well as a Board Mentor at Criticaleye, says: “In the short term, the Chair should give support but, after a while, they ought to be stepping back [to] allow the Chief Exec to perform on their own, at which point an external mentor is a very good idea.”
As is always the case with development tools, you get out what you put in. Phil Smith, Chair of Innovate UK and another Board Mentor at Criticaleye, says that even with an external mentor, mentees shouldn’t expect someone “with all the answers to everything”. Rather, a mentor is someone you can “bounce ideas off” and “have a really strong discussion” with.
The best businesses will seek to use a combination of their non-execs, mentors and other outside experts to develop internal capability, as well as recruitment to bring in new skills and fresh thinking.
Fundamentally, leaders must have the desire to keep learning and improving.
Emma Carroll, Senior Editor, Criticaleye
These comments were taken from the following Criticaleye films:
Next week’s Community Update will look at Getting Closer to the Business as a Non-executive Director.